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Yet while self-reflection is the first step in contemplation and in making decisions from a foundation of heart and mind, the act of contemplation alone does not make contemplative education unique. It is when contemplation infuses a rigorous academic study with the disciplined training of the heart that contemplative education’s distinctiveness shines, enabling a student’s capacity not just to see but to address the needs of the world. Steeped in academic excellence and spiritual insight, this marriage of a compassionate heart and a purposeful mind makes contemplative education distinguished, valuable, and powerful.

Education that is merely a process of acquiring intellectual knowledge is learning from the outside in, disconnected from the heart, the spirit, and the rest of the world. In contrast, contemplative education fosters learning from the inside out. It brings intellect and intuition together in a powerful pedagogy of creativity and insight. Why is that of value? In contemplation, the heart and mind are equally engaged. Meditation and other contemplative practices enhance our awareness of our lives and the lives of others. Awareness, felt in the body, held in the heart, and known in the mind, brings with it the desire and capability to lead an engaged life of mindfulness and service.

In a contemplative educational setting, a student who is developing the tools for engagement will find that awareness permeates life both in and out of the classroom. For example, someone interested in the environment would not just read textbooks and case studies on the subject, but would also participate in a community project to clean a local river and petition for legislative changes to ensure its safety. By reflecting both quietly during meditation practice, aloud during class discussions, and publicly on the causes and effects of environmental degradation, the student learns holistically through study, personal insight, and informed action. To complete the holistic circle, students must be enabled to probe further, discovering how their own choices have contributed to the problem and what steps must be taken to improve the situation on a personal, as well as a societal level. This training is particularly relevant given the need for ethical decision-making so evident today.

At Naropa, students are asked to utilize contemplative practice in their investigations of life’s big existential questions: Who am I? What is happiness? How do I lead a life worth living? How can I be of service to others? Such questions, when united with contemplative inquiry, can be a profound inspiration to the academic pursuit, breathing life and meaning into one’s higher educational career. These big-life questions are difficult to approach in a traditional educational curriculum. However, by learning the value of personally experiencing the subject matter, intuitively as well as intellectually, students of contemplative education begin to embrace the immediacy of their interior lives as a means of fully integrating what they learn. And while these important topics may be largely unexplored in traditional education, their profound mystery remains at the foundation of our very lives.

The full meaning of contemplative education is very subtle and difficult to describe concretely. One way to approach this method of teaching is to see its results in the lives of students, in the choices they make in regard to service, in their efforts to meet the world as it is and change it for the better.


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